Well, this was unexpected.
Not because I thought moving James Harden would be unfathomable for the Oklahoma City Thunder. I actually expected OKC to explore trade options if contract extension terms weren't agreed upon come Oct. 31.
I've heard people saying the Thunder should have just played out the season, then traded Harden in the offseason if need be, because you don't break up a young, ever-improving core fresh off a NBA Finals appearance. I understand that rationale but, at the same time, you don't want a potentially acrimonious situation hanging over the campaign -- and perhaps bleeding into the locker room and onto the court. I'm also a firm believer that if it's a foregone conclusion your star player will eventually be dealt, better to do it sooner than later. The haul is typically better -- Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and some draft picks ain't peanuts -- and you've cut off any drama at the knees.
Ultimately, I just thought "Team Harden" and Thunder GM Sam Presti would discover common ground. I was wrong. As to whether Harden would have been better served taking OKC's offer and remaining part of a perennial juggernaut or the Thunder bricked the negotiations, I'll reserve judgment until I see the inevitable extension from the Houston Rockets. Those particulars provide critical information and, in the meantime, what really matters in this neck of the woods is how this affects the Los Angeles Lakers.
In the long run, I'm guessing OKC didn't dramatically hurt itself. Martin can either be flipped for a more desired piece or becomes more than $12 million in cap relief, either of which allows the Thunder to keep building on a good thing. Lamb is a lottery pick guard who could slide into the role Harden once played. There's no such thing as too many draft picks, whether to fortify your own house or entice a trade partner. Plus, a trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, all in their early 20s, remains quite the enviable core. Even as a big admirer of what Harden brings to the table -- if he's not a true "max" player, he's certainly close -- I'm not convinced this will become an incontrovertible turning point in franchise history.
In the short run, however, it could weaken OKC during the 2013 season, particularly when it comes to matching up against the Lakers.
Losing Harden obviously doesn't take OKC out of the Western Conference playoffs mix. Martin is a very talented scorer capable of putting up 20 points in his sleep. Like The Bearded One, I imagine he'll play off the bench, which helps OKC's second unit remain one of the NBA's most dangerous (especially if Lamb and/or Perry Jones III can contribute right away). Eric Maynor is healthy again, giving the reserves a point guard who can pick up some of Harden's playmaking slack. Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins remain valuable role players. And any team with Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka at the forefront must be respected. I expect OKC to remain among the Western Conference's biggest threats.
Having said that, Harden's loss will be felt. In a big way.
Martin isn't necessarily better at putting up points and, in the meantime, Harden is better at literally everything else, including staying healthy. He's among the more multiskilled wings in the league, much less on the Thunder, and that do-it-all skill set will be missed -- particularly on the defensive end, where Martin has spent a career as a turnstile.
Harden may not be an elite defender, yet, but he's solid and steadily improving. Just ask Harden's idol Kobe Bryant. Anybody who has seen those two matched up knows the Thunder just lost a player who gets absolutely geeked to check The Mamba, and has been successful making him work hard for points. Now OKC's best options to guard Kobe either carry a large scoring burden as it is (Durant) or hamper the Thunder's overall offense through his limitations (Sefolosha).
Harden offered defense without sacrificing offense, similar to how he greased OKC's offense as a scorer/facilitator who lessened burdens for both Durant and Westbrook. With Harden on the floor, the Thunder often looked unstoppable. Without him, their relatively few flaws often became more pronounced.
A player like that is hard to replace. Maybe not impossible to do, but it'll take some work and solutions may not immediately present themselves.
Which leads to another reason this trade could be a boon for the Lakers. Beyond seeing Harden jettisoned to a Western Conference bottom dweller, one big advantages OKC had over the Lakers was continuity. Even a video-game-like starting five of Steve Nash, Kobe, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard can't simply snap their fingers to summon greatness. More often than not, it takes time. As the Lakers got on the same page, the Thunder's only goal would be to build on an exceptional foundation. With OKC suddenly dealt a learning curve of its own, the playing field has been leveled a bit. Depending on how long it takes OKC to jell, the No. 1 seed in the West could become a more attainable goal for the Lakers, even while learning on the fly.
In any event, the composition of the Western Conference just underwent a dramatic change, and the Lakers may end up among the beneficiaries.